[K:NWTS 10/1 (May 1995) 17-24]

What is the Gospel?

Matthew 11:2-6

Charles G. Dennison

Kerux V10N1A3

In 1927 J. Gresham Machen wrote an article for The Union Seminary Review to reply to John Allan MacLean who had written for the Review the previous year. Machen noted the responses to a survey MacLean had conducted in his congregation on the very important question "What is the gospel?" While he reflected with gentle criticism on the responses from the people, Machen was undoubtedly frustrated with MacLean.

Without attacking MacLean directly, Machen responded to an obvious indifference in MacLean's article to the great threat of modernism. He also addressed the failure of the article to deal with the mistaken impression that the gospel is a message about personal experiences and obligations. The dominant note in MacLean's analysis was heard in such question-begging statements as "The meaning of 'the Gospel' to each individual is really his personal reaction to it" (MacLean's emphasis) and ". . . the Gospel . . . is the individual reaction to its teachings."

For Machen the gospel is summarized by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3, 4: "Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and . . . was buried, and . . . rose again the third day according to the scripture." These words do not express directions about a way of life or "a complex of worthy ideals"; much less do they express the personal reaction or feelings of those who might identify with them. The gospel is the good news about what Jesus did in his death and resurrection. Machen said, ". . . the rehearsal of what [Jesus] did constitutes the center of the good news upon which Christianity depends."

My interest in preaching to you today is to build on Machen's clearheaded commitment. I want to look again into the question "What is the gospel?" so that we might appreciate what's so good about the good news. But rather than appealing to the apostle Paul as Machen did, I turn to the gospel of Matthew for consideration of a passage in which Jesus himself spoke about the good news. I have in mind Matthew 11 and the account of Jesus' meeting with the disciples of John the Baptist in which Jesus says that, in his ministry, the poor have the gospel proclaimed to them (v. 5).


You will remember that John earlier had no trouble recognizing Jesus at the Jordan as the promised one (Mt. 3). The God of Israel had trained his eyes in the desert through revelation; and now he saw in Jesus a glory beyond what this dark world was able to comprehend.

It may well have been a winter's day when Jesus approached John at the Jordan. But John's heart was not cold to the Son of God. He baptized with water but here was the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Mt. 3:11). "I have need of baptism by you," John confessed, "and do you come to me?" Before the encounter closed, John witnessed further revelation—the voice of the Father after the descent of the Spirit dovelike upon the Son. What confirmation! John did not ask for more.

The fourth gospel provides evidence for the depth of John's satisfaction with Jesus. "Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world." So John testified to his disciples some forty days later when Jesus came out of the Judean wilderness (John 1:29). Nor did John begrudge Jesus the disciples who had left him to follow Jesus. In fact, that summer as Jesus' disciples, some of whom had been followers of John, carried on their own ministry of baptism in Judea, John was questioned by those still with him (John 3:26ff.). They worried that Jesus' popularity might mean the end of their own unique service for the coming kingdom. But John sees things clearly. "He must increase, but I must decrease," he tells them. "I am only the friend of the bridegroom," he continued. "My joy is to hear the bridegroom's voice. After all, he who comes from above is above all."

And then, as the Spirit grabbed hold of this last of the Old Testament prophets and gave him the most mature voice equal to any ever heard in the history of revelation, John said, "the Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hands. He who believes in the Son has eternal life, but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him."

So, John the Baptist recognized Jesus as the promised one, the Messiah. In fact, it is difficult to imagine any more mature, any fuller recognition by anyone, even by a post-Pentecost apostle, who had been witness to the risen Christ and had been blessed by the gift of the Spirit.


But winter returned and, about one year after Jesus' baptism, John was arrested. He was taken into custody by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. John had condemned Antipas's adulterous marriage to Herodias, his brother Philip's wife. Now, John sat imprisoned possibly in Machaerus, Antipas's castle east of the Dead Sea.

Here he received reports, carried by his disciples and others, about Jesus' Galilean ministry. With the mounting number of reports, John's uneasiness grew. He heard nothing in them about Jesus' condemnation of Herod. But what is more, he heard nothing in them that sounded much like the baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire. Where was the axe laid to the root of the tree, the chaff separated from the wheat and burned by an unquenchable flame (Mt. 3:10-12)?

Still, the memories from that day at the Jordan persisted and, along with them, the power of the revelation John had been privileged to behold. "How could I have been wrong?" he asked himself. "Surely, the Messiah brings recompense. He most certainly brings God's wrath upon the apostate in Israel and upon a wicked world." John knew his captors were in jeopardy as were also the corrupt and usurpacious establishment in Jerusalem. They would be destroyed, the morally vile exterminated, the religiously compromised and indifferent removed, and the nations judged.

John understood that those prepared for this conflagration by his baptism would come through the Messiah's judgments of the Spirit and fire to enjoyment of the incomparable riches of God's eternal kingdom. But, now, John wonders at the reports about Jesus. He asks, "Where's the judgment?" Still clinging to his bond with Jesus and quite sensitive to the dangers of his own situation (the Messianic visitation should mean his release and vindication), John dispatches his disciples to Jesus with the question, "Are you the one, or should we look for someone else?" (Mt. 11:3).


Jesus' response to this inquiry, we are confident, will register well upon John. It will bring the fresh breezes of new life to this man who sits in a dungeon proximate to death. Jesus' response will minister a bold faith as John's last days draw near.

In words designed by love and for comfort, Jesus says, "Go tell John the things you see and hear." But note, Jesus is not content to leave John's disciples on their own when it comes to what they hear and see. Yes, they have ears and eyes. But Jesus goes on to tell them what they are seeing and hearing. We have here no rehearsal of brute facts. In other words, Jesus interprets for John's disciples what they have witnessed (Mt. 11:5).

Jesus casts his interpretation in familiar tones, recognizable to all who love the promises from the prophets about the great day of coming redemption. He draws his comments from two texts, Isaiah 35:5, 6 and Isaiah 61:1. Both of these passages speak with extraordinary force about God's coming visitation to this world.

But Jesus does some interesting things in his quotations. First, he adds two categories to his listing not mentioned by Isaiah in either chapter 35 or 61. To the blind receiving sight, the lame the power to walk, the deaf the ability to hear, and the poor the comfort of the good news, Jesus adds the cleansed lepers and the raised dead. If nothing else, Jesus' additions heighten the sense of blessing belonging to God's marvellous visitation. The old categories are exceeded, even when they are at their most glorious. Truly, the blessings belonging to God's visitation are greater than what was imagined, greater than what even John imagined. What Jesus has brought is not less than John should hope for; it is more.

Secondly, Jesus cites the two Isaian passages in the most interesting way. He picks up his citation of Isaiah 35 precisely at the point the prophesy ceases its mention of God's vengeance and recompense. Verse 4 says:

Say to them that are of fearful heart, "Be strong, fear not, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompense; he will come and save you."

But verse 5 goes on:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped, then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb will shout for joy.

We might think nothing of this, if Jesus had not moved on to quote from Isaiah 61:1 along the same lines; he says nothing of the vengeance mentioned in the second verse. Jesus' intent is even more clear in Luke 4:18, 19, where he quotes the promise from Isaiah 61 to the very point at which vengeance is introduced.

Now, the fact that Jesus picks up his quote of Isaiah 35 where mention of vengeance ceases and he concludes his reference to Isaiah 61 before mention of vengeance begins does not mean he had abandoned the certainty of God's coming judgment. Jesus believed in the "unquenchable fire" as much as John; no, even more. He is not editing the judgment out of his definition of the kingdom as liberalism has supposed. By avoiding mention of the judgment in his response to John, Jesus calls attention to the way in which the kingdom of heaven arrives and presently asserts itself without denying its future consummate appearance.

Machen reflected on this double reality to the kingdom in his response to MacLean. "[The] kingdom of Jesus' teaching was both present and future," Machen said, "and to ignore that second feature is to misunderstand the Gospels from beginning to end." At the same time and very much to the point, to ignore the first feature and the specific relationship between the present and the future of the kingdom leads to a misunderstanding of the gospels from beginning to end.

This was John's problem as he sat in prison: he could not separate the kingdom's presence from his expectation of immediate judgment. By the same token, he could not lay aside his conviction that this judgment must precede promised blessing.

Jesus' response to John not only sets out the present reality of the kingdom in himself and in his ministry but boldly declares, "No, John, not judgment before blessing but blessing, nothing less than future blessing, before judgment!" Here is content as essential to the gospel as the basic record of Christ's redemptive acts on the cross and in the resurrection. In fact, here is the meaning of those acts as even Paul makes plain in 1Corinthians 15:3 where he says, "Christ died for our sins...." The forgiveness of our sins through Christ's death means living in the presence of our future acquittal before the face of God.

Here is good news to the poor. In the gospel the future, eternal blessings of the heavenly kingdom have arrived. The marvels and wonders of glories are communicated presently. They are not wholly reserved for a point beyond judgment. Rather they are present as gracious evidence that the age of fulfillment of God's promises has begun for us and in us through Jesus Christ our Lord. We move toward consummation while the world above and beyond the consummation works in us, even superimposes itself upon us in our present suffering.

After all, Jesus, in Matthew's gospel, is identified as Immanuel, "God with us" (1:23). That is to say, our Savior has not left us but continues with us, his very person overlaying our humiliation in this present world (cf. 28:20). We, the poor and his church, have been exceedingly enriched despite the privation and affliction that comes to us on account of him to whom we are bound. Through Jesus Christ, God's future presence with us in glory is being communicated to us, now. This, John is being taught in his stinking prison cell.


But doesn't such an analysis of the gospel from Matthew 11 demand that we recognize the miracles listed there by Jesus as a perpetual testimony to the presence of the kingdom? Should we not look for the continuation of such miracles, today? Are they not to be expected currently as indispensable content to the gospel?

This brings before us another reason for Jesus' additions to the Isaian texts. The specific categories of the healed lepers and raised dead force us beyond the mere physical tragedies to the supreme spiritual impossibilities answered only in the gospel. Leprosy cured points to the moral pollution it typified removed. The dead raised points to death defeated.

The good news, therefore, cannot be lepers cured to suffer reinfection later, nor can it be tied to the religious monstrosity of corpses raised for a few more years here only to die again. The continuing ministry of the kingdom, to which the healing ministries of Jesus and the apostles attest, bestows the greater blessing of cleansing from sin (as seen in healing lepers) and eternal life (as seen in the raising of the dead). All of the others in Isaiah's and Jesus' lists—the blind, the lame, the deaf, the poor—must be interpreted in this way.

Though it is difficult for many to understand, the cure from disease and the deliverance from poverty are actually the lesser blessings, even in heaven. In fact, the inability to see this, or to hear this truth, or to walk in its light leaves us short of the gospel's true message and hopelessly groping for something of this world as the gospel's content. At this level, the miracles become a hindrance to the gospel. While essential to Jesus' ministry and to the foundational ministry of the apostles and prophets in the New Testament, the miracles are left out of current kingdom ministry as a mercy to us.

However, we must not overlook the liabilities loaded even into the categories of the cleansed lepers and the raised dead. Despite their spiritual orientation, they can be used in the interests of a "this-world message." For example, forgiveness of sins (as seen in healing of the lepers) can be turned into mere therapy, confidence in it made only a means for coping with guilt. How sad that some who stress justification by faith push this great doctrine along these lines. In other words, justification is thought to have value because of its potential for making us feel better about ourselves in this world, not because of the way it binds us to eternity and to God.

It is important to note that justification as therapy was no help to John in prison. Such an approach is treasured by those whose interest and orientation is this life. But John's life in this world was about to end. So, something else must minister to this poor man. John must receive back his disciples with something other than a promise that his captivity would end in release from his earthly cell. He must receive their message as gospel, good news and, in so doing, grasp that eternal blessing has arrived in Jesus and that Jesus, God's Son and his Savior, has come to grant such kingdom blessing as prelude not simply as postlude to the coming judgment.

To believe otherwise leaves John short of the gospel and a prisoner still. Sadly, too many professed Christians are in this very situation.

Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Sewickley, Pennsylvania